Have you ever had a teenager tell you something that immediately activates you to DO SOMETHING to solve the problem or lower the risk? Anxiety is a powerful emotion – warning us that something bad might happen and to do something about it (get away or plan ahead). This urge to act is compelling and hard to resist and the stakes can be high. So why not?
Imagine an adolescent who confides in you that they are going to cheat on their SAT, or engage in unsafe sexual activity, or use substances in a reckless way. Do you notice the urge to DO SOMETHING even as you read this? By reacting quickly with psychoeducation, outlining risk, and emphatically telling the adolescent not to engage in the behavior we are reducing our own anxiety by DOING SOMETHING – we are not necessarily teaching anything or lowering the risk. We actually run the risk that the teen will defend their initial decision in response, thus strengthening their commitment to engage in behaviors that distress us. It is often ineffective.
Consider a slightly different approach: Notice your own anxiety. It’s telling you something. At the same time manage your urge to act and instead redirect your focus to experientially teaching problem solving. Isn’t this exactly what we want our teens to do? Notice urges and consider their value before acting? Our role is to teach teens to make good decisions, use good judgment, and learn from mistakes. Responding by modeling a relatively calm and logical manner and a more measured motivational interviewing approach is more likely to engage the young person in looking at risks without having to defend their position and it demonstrates for them how to effectively manage emotions and consider consequences thoughtfully.
At the end of your time with the teen, if you absolutely must, you can then state your anxiety driven thoughts. Just allow enough time first for the adolescent to get there himself or herself and learn from the experience.
See my recent interview about this topic: Interview
-Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C
Parents Have it REALLY Hard!
Emotional reactions are amplified with parents and their children. It makes sense that managing anxiety is even harder for parents. We find that the best thing parents can do when they become activated to DO SOMETHING is to take a pause before reacting.
Taking a pause allows parents to access their wisdom and knowledge and consider various responses before acting on their emotions. Inevitably, the response will be more measured, thoughtful, and effective.
How to do it? When activated:
1. NOTICE the activation. Label it: “I’m noticing my heart beating, I’m noticing a strong urge to say something”.
2. ALLOW IT TO PASS. Just observe the urge without acting. Let the urge naturally diminish.
3. CONSIDER OPTIONS. Think about what is most effective, not what “feels” right.
4. ACT WITH INTENTION. Say or do just what needs to be said or done.
Not easy! This approach gets easier with regular practice so consider noticing urges, thoughts, and feelings in other parts of life – without acting immediately. Build in the pause and notice the impact.
-Britt Rathbone, LCSW-C